The Celebration Known As Kwanzaa Is Turning 50 Years Old This Holiday Season
By Carla Turchetti
This weeklong festival that celebrates African Americans is rich in history and tradition, and encompasses principles to live by the whole year through.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. He pulled pieces from several different kinds of African harvest festivals to develop this holiday honoring commitment to family, community and culture. At the heart of Kwanzaa is its seven different principles. A different principle is observed and discussed on each night beginning on December 26th. Dr. Karenga selected Kwanzaa for the name of his celebration because it roughly translates in Swahili to “first fruits”. Each principle is also referred to by its name in Swahili, which was chosen because it is a vehicular language that transcends any single group and is used across Africa.
The seven principles are
- Umoja * Unity
- Kujichagulia * Self-determination
- Ujima * Collective work and responsibility
- Ujamaa * Cooperative economics
- Nia * Purpose
- Kuumba * Creativity
- Imani * Faith, especially faith in one’s self
“The Kwanzaa principles are really what I call common sense kinds of things, almost like the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes,” says Beverly Burnette, a Midtown resident and president of the North Carolina Association of Black Storytellers. “I’m a retired school social worker, and in social work and guidance we called them character traits.”
Burnette and other storytellers are often called on to participate in larger gatherings that celebrate Kwanzaa, and they share stories that relate to each of the seven traits. The group is also the force behind a nationally syndicated radio show that airs on NPR/International Public Radio each year. “A Season’s Griot” has been hosted for the past 21 years by storyteller Madafo Lloyd Wilson of Wilmington, and has featured original compositions by Burnette.
“In storytelling we like to not only promote the positives,
we like to promote the culture and guide the young people in the right way for their own lives,” Burnette says.
Donna Washington, a Triangle author who has written two books for children about Kwanzaa, is also called on to perform at Kwanzaa celebrations.
“It is not a religious holiday, it is a festival,” Washington says. “It is a celebration of what we can do to make the world a better place. So every day is about celebrating our power to change the world.”
Some who celebrate Kwanzaa take part in larger, community-based gatherings while others choose to celebrate each of the nights at home as a family.
Tradition calls for a table to be set as the centerpiece of the celebration. A mat made of African cloth is placed on the table, followed by the kinara, which is a candleholder. There are seven candles, one for each principle, in the colors of Kwanzaa, which are black, red and green. Black stands for the people, red stands for the struggle, and green represents the future and hope. Candles are lit every night and typically a unity cup with a libation is shared.
“It honors the elders because that is where the power of your life comes from, from the things that were handed down to you. You stand on the shoulders of the people who did the hard work so you can have what you have,” Washington says.
Corn is also placed on the mat to symbolize the crops of the harvest, and African art objects and books are displayed to represent culture. Children are given gifts during Kwanzaa, which usually include a book and a heritage symbol to emphasize learning and tradition. The presence of gifts is not intended to take away from other holidays in December.
“When it first began 50 years ago people were a little suspect and thought it would replace Christmas or some other religious holiday,” says Burnette. “It’s not a religious holiday, but you can still find the messages for one’s life caught up in those principles.”
Washington says Dr. Karenga created this celebration with the intention of bringing light to the world.
“There is no festival of Kwanzaa anywhere in Africa,” Washington says, “It is based on celebrations of first fruit in Africa. The seasons are reversed, and harvests are happening then. He placed it at this time of year because it is another festival of lights along with Ramadan, Hanukkah and Christmas.”
Living a Life of Principles
While the actual Kwanzaa celebration only lasts for a week each year, the principles can be observed around the year.
Professional dancer, choreographer and poet Aya Shabu believes in living the principles of Kwanzaa every day. Shabu is an alumna of the nationally recognized African American Dance Ensemble and shares African American history through her performances.
“Because I work on living these principles 365 days a year, I’ve named each day of the week for a different principle,” says Shabu. “I love Sundays, which are Umoja – unity. I am reminded of my childhood when our family got together after church for a big Sunday dinner. Coming together as a community generates a deep feeling of personal power enabling me to strike out on Monday for Kujichagulia, self-determination. With the power of my family and my community behind me, I am able to face the demands of the larger society.”
Shabu says the day and principle she finds the most challenging is Ujamaa, or cooperative economics.
“As a black woman, mother and artist, I often feel excluded from opportunities because of my gender, race and class. Despite the example of the historic Hayti neighborhood and Black Wall Street, economic solidarity within the black community remains a challenge,” Shabu says.
“There are lots of communities who need the values all year,” Washington says. “To be honest, they are about poverty and power. If you don’t support the members of your own community, then your community will fail. Anytime you don’t support your community, it is going to die.”
Washington’s favorite principle is Kujichagulia, or self-determination, which was the theme of her picture book for children, Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa.
“If you’re determined within yourself to do something, your action has a ripple effect on everything around you – good, bad or indifferent. When you take that first step and you decide you are going to do something, you change the world around you,” Washington says.
Burnette is particularly drawn to the principle of the seventh day, which is Imami, or faith.
“You have got to have faith in something beyond yourself and you also have to have faith in yourself,” Burnette says.
She believes it is important to keep teaching the younger generations the meaning of the seven principles.
“All of them have a good connotation taken by themselves. But collectively, the seven really give a good guidance toward life and existence and how to live your life as an example for your children and for your people. If you stand on those seven principles, you’d be a pretty good citizen,” Burnette says.
“All of them are about you, your family, your community and your nation,” Washington says. “If you are strong for your family and your family works for the community and the community works for the wider nation, then we will all be better off. These are principles to live by every day.”